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Commander of first flight by space shuttle Challenger dies at 85

Paul Weitz, a retired Nasa astronaut who commanded the first flight of the space shuttle Challenger and also piloted Skylab in the early 1970s, has died at the age of 85.

Mr Weitz died at a retirement home in Flagstaff, Arizona, said Laura Cutchens of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation. No cause of death was given.

Nasa says he was among the class of 19 astronauts chosen in April 1966, and served as command module pilot on the first crew of the orbiting space laboratory known as Skylab during a 28-day mission in 1973.

Mr Weitz also commanded the first launch of the ill-fated Challenger in April 1983. The five-day mission took off from Kennedy Space Centre in Florida and landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Challenger was destroyed and seven crew members killed during its 10th launch on January 28 1986.

In all, Mr Weitz logged 793 hours in space and retired as deputy director of Johnson Space Centre in May 1994.

He was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, on July 25 1932, and graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a degree in aeronautical engineering in 1954, according to Nasa.

He then joined the navy, serving on a destroyer before being chosen for flight training and earning his wings as a naval aviator in September 1956.

He served in various naval squadrons, including service in Vietnam, before joining the Astronaut Corps.

According to the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, Mr Weitz returned to the navy after his mission on Skylab and retired as a captain in July 1976 after serving 22 years. He then came out of retirement to rejoin Nasa.

"Paul Weitz's name will always be synonymous with the space shuttle Challenger. But he also will be remembered for defying the laws of gravity - and age," said Curtis Brown, board chairman of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation and an astronaut and veteran of six space flights.

"Before it became commonplace to come out of retirement, Paul was a pioneer. He proved 51 was just a number."

The foundation is supported by astronauts from the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, Space Shuttle and Space Station programmes and annually provides scholarships for 45 students.

AP

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